Wasps clock faces like humans

Some people say they never forget a face, and they aren’t alone — the golden paper wasp can also recognize the faces of other members of its species. In humans, this cognitive feat is thought to rely on specialized brain areas evolved specifically for the task, and work published today in Science suggests that the same may be true for these wasps.

“Fifteen years ago, if people had claimed [face recognition] existed in insects, others would have thought they were mad,” says Lars Chittka, a behavioural and sensory ecologist at Queen Mary University of London who was not involved in the study.

[Read more at Nature // December 1, 2011]


Breaking the Silence

BreakSilenceIt all started with an expression problem. Michael Gottesman and his lab members at the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland were studying a membrane protein involved in drug metabolism called P-glycoprotein to understand why some people develop resistance to chemotherapy during cancer treatment. But when the scientists tried to express large quantities of the protein in bacterial cells, they hit a wall.

“It was a real mess,” Gottesman recalls. “We couldn’t do it.”

The genetic code is read in triplets called codons, 64 of them representing just 20 amino acids. That means there is more than one codon for each amino acid, and different organisms preferentially use certain codons to make translation faster.

[Read more at Nature Medicine (paywall) or download PDF // December 6, 2011]


Biomarkers on the brain

Niklas Mattsson had always been interested in cognition and the biology of how it goes awry. Attending medical school to become a neurologist seemed a no-brainer. But after a year working in a neurology clinic, where many of his patients suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, he found that medicine wasn’t quite the right fit for him. “I enjoyed working with patients — it was very rewarding,” he says. “But it did not give me the opportunity to really focus on basic disease mechanisms.” Research on animal models or cellular processes also held little allure, because it would take him too far away from the clinic.

[Read more at Naturejobs // November 2, 2011]

Why fake it?

FakitItBrainPeggy Willocks was 44 when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It progressed quickly, forcing her to retire four years later from her job as a primary-school principal in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Soon, her condition had deteriorated so much that she was often unable to dress and feed herself, take care of basic hygiene or walk unaided across a room.

Willocks enrolled in a trial for an experimental therapy called Spheramine, developed by Titan Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company in South San Francisco, California. Spheramine consists of cultured human retinal epithelial cells bound to specialized man-made carrier molecules. The cells are implanted into the brain, where it is hoped that they will produce the dopamine precursor levodopa, which can reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. In August 2000, Willocks became the second person ever to receive the treatment. After having a steel halo — a stereotactic frame — bolted to her skull, she was put under general anaesthesia. Surgeons then used the frame and coordinates obtained from numerous magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to pinpoint the location at which to drill. They then snaked a catheter through her brain’s white matter to deliver the cells into the striatum.

At first there was no effect, but Willocks says that after 6–8 months she began to feel better. The changes were always moderate and gradual, except for once, about nine months after her surgery, when she showed what her doctor called a “radical” improvement in balance. By a year after the treatment, she and the five other patients in the phase I trial showed an improvement in motor ability of 48%, and those gains largely held 4 years later.

Ten years on, she says she notices her condition worsening, but is still doing much better than she was before her operation. She has no doubt that the treatment works. Investigators disagree…

[Read more at Nature or download PDF // August 10, 2011]


A kinder, gentler defibrillator

When electrical rhythms in the heart go haywire, applying a strong electric shock to the chest can set them straight. But the procedure can also damage heart tissue and cause intense pain, prompting a search for a gentler approach. A technique tested in dogs now claims to be just that: it resets heart arrhythmias by applying a series of five small shocks, instead of one large one, slashing the amount of energy needed by about 84%.

[Read more at Nature // July 13, 2011]

Gene tests for brain injury still far from the football field

Last month, doctors released the autopsy results of former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson, confirming speculation that the professional football player had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of dementia thought to be caused by years of head injuries sustained on the field. Did he carry a genetic signature that predisposed him to the disease? For almost two decades researchers have hunted—some would say in vain—for genes that might make people more susceptible to dementia from traumatic brain injuries. In February, just days after Duerson committed suicide by a shot to the stomach, researchers published another paper that touched on the role genes might have in CTE, but the connection remains controversial.

[Read more at Nature Medicine (paywall) or download PDF // June 6, 2011]